John Cleese on ‘woke’ thought: ‘There’s so much I really don’t understand’

Comedian to present Cancel Me, a Channel 4 show about ‘all aspects’ of political correctness

John Cleese: the Monty Python founder made headlines last year when he mocked Irish names. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty

John Cleese: the Monty Python founder made headlines last year when he mocked Irish names. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty

 

John Cleese is to explore cancel culture in a new series for Channel 4. The comedian and writer – best known for the comedy classics Fawlty Towers and Monty Python – will “set forth into the minefield of cancel culture to explore why a new ‘woke’ generation is trying to rewrite the rules on what can and can’t be said”, according to the channel.

In the series, called John Cleese: Cancel Me, he will ask whether it is possible to make good comedy without someone taking offence, and will meet some famous faces who have found themselves on the receiving end of cancel culture. He will also meet people who are doing the cancelling, to investigate what is driving them.

Cleese, who is now 81, and rose to fame in the 1970s as a founder of the surrealist comedy group Monty Python, alongside Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, has previously criticised the “stifling” effect of political correctness on creativity, saying there is no such thing as a “woke joke”.

Addressing his new series, he said: “I’m delighted to have a chance to find out, on camera, about all the aspects of so-called political correctness. There’s so much I really don’t understand, like: how the impeccable idea of ‘Let’s all be kind to people’ has been developed in some cases ad absurdum.

“I want to bring the various reasonings right out in the open so that people can be clearer in their minds what they agree with, what they don’t agree with, and what they still can’t make their mind up about.”

Cleese made headlines in Ireland last year when he mocked Irish names, citing the spelling of Caoimhe as a reason why Ireland “never had an empire”. The previous year, at a summit in Dublin, Cleese noted Ireland’s “alcohol problem” and then remarked on the name of his interviewer, Síle Seoige. “It’s impossible to pronounce,” he told a packed conference hall. “Why don’t you Irish spell your names properly?”

Last year Cleese also criticised the BBC when UKTV, which the BBC owns, temporarily removed an episode of Fawlty Towers for “racial slurs” and “outdated language”.

The episode, The Germans, contained a scene in which the character of Major Gowen uses racist language in an anecdote about the West Indies cricket team. Cleese told the Australian newspaper the Age at the time: “If you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of, you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them. The major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them. If they can’t see that – if people are too stupid to see that – what can one say?”

The episode was later reinstated on the platform with a content and language warning.

Cleese has been vocal about his opinions on “cancel culture” in the past, saying he worries about the effects it might have on creativity.

Political correctness “started out as a good idea, which is, ‘Let’s not be mean to people’, and I’m in favour of that despite my age,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in September 2020.

“The main thing is to try to be kind. But that then becomes a sort of indulgence of the most oversensitive people in your culture, the people who are most easily upset … I don’t think we should organise a society around the sensibilities of the most easily upset people, because then you have a very neurotic society.

“From the point of creativity, if you have to keep thinking which words you can use and which you can’t, then that will stifle creativity. The main thing is to realise that words depend on their context. Very literal-minded people think a word is a word but it isn’t.”– PA, Guardian

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